Global Initiatives

Putin promotes Central Asian union

The Vancouver Sun

By Jonathan Manthorpe

Russia's past and future president, Vladimir Putin, once called the collapse of the Soviet Union "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century," and he may well be intent on repairing history's damage.

In a column in Izvestiya newspaper Putin, in his first major announcement after announcing his planned return to the presidency a week before, said he plans to construct an economic and security "Eurasian Union" of former Soviet Central Asian republics modelled on the European Union.

The Eurasian Union, Putin wrote, will be based on the e x i s t i n g c u s t o m s u n i o n between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

"We are not going to stop there, and are setting an ambitious goal before ourselves - to get to the next, even higher level of integration," he wrote.

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are the logical next candidates for inclusion in this new bloc, he said.

And perhaps with an eye on international suspicion because of his well-known nostalgia for the Soviet Union and his evident tsarist political tendencies - a major element in his appeal to Russian voters with their yearning for stability - Putin specifically denied this plan is a return to the past.

"There is no talk of rebuilding the U.S.S.R. [Soviet Union] one way or another," he wrote.

"It would be naive to try to restore or copy something that belongs to the past, but a close integration based on new values and economic and political foundation is a demand of the present," Putin said.

Putin has spurred the creation of many Moscow-led regional groups since he came to power as President in 2000 and then as Prime Minister in 2008. He plans to return to the presidency next year and under constitutional amendments could remain in that office until 2024.

"We received a big legacy from the Soviet Union - infrastructure, current industrial specialization, and a common linguistic, scientific and cultural space," Putin wrote last week.

"To use this resource together for our development is in our common interest."

The Eurasian Union would build on at least two existing initiatives.

One is the 2009 customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus, which removed tariffs and customs controls along internal borders.

In January this agreement will expand to allow the free movement of goods, services and capital across a single market which will include 165 million people.

As well as welcoming now independent former Soviet republics in Central Asia, there is also talk of the new bloc adopting a single currency and, according to Putin, adapting other functions of the European Union.

What prompted international suspicion, especially in western Europe, that Putin is bent on rebuilding the Soviet Union is that his new economic bloc fits neatly with an existing military group, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

The CSTO, formed in 2002, comprises Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, and has been trumpeted repeatedly by Russian officials - though not convincingly - as a future counterweight to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

But Putin is clearly signalling that during his renewed presidency Moscow will put political capital and money behind his economic and security Central Asian alliances.

The success of Putin's dreams is not a foregone outcome. The country's of Central Asia are mostly relishing their 20 years of independence and although most remain friendly to Moscow, most have abundant stocks of natural resources which have made them highly attractive to other suitors, especially China, Japan and India.

And even the existing lowlevel customs union has raised opposition, in Kazakhstan in particular, where it is held responsible for sharp increases in food and fuel prices.

It is unlikely that Putin's club will be attractive to any of the former members of the Soviet bloc, such as Ukraine and Georgia, who have worked toward membership of the European Union, but who have been put on hold while Brussels struggles with the debt crisis.

The gross domestic product of Russia and the Central Asian states last year was $1.9 billion while that the of European Union was $16 trillion.

But there is also a view that Putin's Eurasian Union is an expression of his frustration with Russia's 18-years of fruitless efforts to join the World Trade Organization.

It's an old and often effective tactic. If the good country clubs won't give you membership, form your own.


Source: The Vancouver Sun

Post-Crisis World Institute